Vampires, it seems, will never lose their popularity. Just witness the recent (and very public) burst of grief over the death of Anne Rice, famous for writing “Interview with the Vampire.” Movie studios and streaming companies continue to pump out lots of vampire content for the masses (including the upcoming “Firebite” on AMC+, which looks really cool, as well as Netflix’s recent “Midnight Mass”). Bloodsuckers of the night have become such a fixture of pop culture that it’s easy to forget a time when folks really believed they existed.
In fact, those times aren’t so distant from the modern day. In the 19th century, peculiar panic gripped people in rural New England. This panic led them to exhume the bodies of the recently deceased, remove the hearts, and even rearrange the bones. “Testing a Horrible Superstition in the Town of Exeter,” one newspaper reported at the time. “Bodies of dead relatives taken from their graves.”
What drove these horrific rituals? More than a century before Stephen King composed “’Salem’s Lot,” New England was seized by a widespread terror of vampires. Well-publicized cases included Frederick Ransom, a young man who died in Vermont in February 1817; his family exhumed the body and burned his heart to ash on a blacksmith’s forge. Seventy-five years later, the corpse of a young woman named Mercy Brown was removed from its aboveground vault in Exeter, Rhode Island, the heart burned, and the ashes mixed into an elixir given to her sick brother (who later died).
Nor were those isolated cases; for decades, families and local authorities throughout the area made it their business to kill (or re-kill) the “undead.” In a 2012 piece in Smithsonian magazine, Rhode Island folklorist Michael Bell claims to have counted 80 exhumations “reaching as far back as the late 1700s and as far west as Minnesota.” And while these events might have been traumatic for the surviving family, they also drew flocks of curious and morbid onlookers. “Timothy Mead officiated at the altar in the sacrifice to the Demon Vampire who it was believed was still sucking the blood of the then living wife of Captain Burton,” relates a town history quoted in the article. “It was the month of February and good sleighing.”
There’s one common thread that links the majority of these cases: tuberculosis, known back in the day as “consumption.” In the era before microscopes and germ theory, people had no idea why their relatives wasted away — or why the disease’s hideous effects seemed to pass between family members. Without that scientific knowledge of bacteria, superstitious beliefs sprouted up; folks came to believe that those who died of consumption returned from the grave to drain the life-force of their living kin.
Desperate to stop the vampire “attacks,” villagers would head out to the local cemetery with their shovels, disinter the suspect body, and examine it for lack of decay. They also probed the heart and liver for “fresh blood.” If they thought the person was undead, they would sometimes decapitate, sometimes burn, sometimes mix up the limbs.
These communities lacked a name for the unseen creatures in their midst. “No credible account describes a corpse actually leaving the grave to suck blood, and there is little evidence to suggest that those involved in the practice referred to it as ‘vampirism’ or to the suspected corpse as a ‘vampire,’ although newspaper accounts used this term to refer to the practice,” Michael Bell wrote in a paper, “Vampires and Death in New England, 1784 to 1892,” that appeared in an October 2008 issue of Anthropology and Humanism.
The New England Vampire Panic echoes another supernatural freak-out that gripped the region more than a century before: The Salem Witch Trials. In the latter case, suspicions of witchcraft (referred to as “molestations of the invisible world,” in one court document) led to a spasm of indictments, trials, and hangings. Some researchers have offered medical theories to explain the victims’ afflictions, while others have focused on the sociological. Whatever the ultimate explanation, a whole community (including a lot of ostensibly rational people) succumbed to the sway of invisible forces.
Both the Salem Witch Trials and the New England Vampire Panic took place in isolated communities bending under considerable economic and societal pressure. In that kind of environment, it might only take a single spark (such as the outbreak of tuberculosis or another disease) for people to begin exhibiting strange and hysterical behavior. When everyone’s stressed out, hanging a witch or dissecting a dead body becomes a mechanism of release—at least someone’s taking action, no matter how weird and horrific. Even in the late 19th century, ostensibly a time of reason, it was hard to slam a stake through the heart of superstition. No matter what the era, it’s easy for a population to freak out over misinformation.